Revelation 2:12-17 — Prophetic Oracle for Pergamum

Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Pergamum competed with Ephesus and Smyrna for importance as all three had imperial temples (Neokoros). It the first city to build a temple dedicated to a Roman Emperor (Augustus in 29 BCE, which was also dedicated to Roma). Pergamum was city alive with pagan spirituality and dedication. Its temple to Asclepios (the Roman god of healing) was renowned and the god adorned the city’s coinage in the late first century. 250px-Pergamonmuseum_PergamonaltarThe large altar of Zeus which is now in the Berlin Pergamum museum (pictured here) was a magnificent marble structure. Pagan and Imperial vitality was as pervasive and healthy as in any city in Asia. As an administrative center, Neokoros of the imperial cult, and medical center based in the Temple of Asclepios as well as the second largest library in the world (next to Alexandria) it was a religio-cultural center for Asia and beyond.

Addressor:  “the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.”

Revelation 1:16 pictures Christ with a two-edged sword coming out his mouth. The sword probably represents the discerning message that pierces hearts and opens up their secrets before God. The sword can heal or destroy; it can regenerate (renew) or devastate. Christ has some sharp words for Pergamum that entail the potential use of the destructive power of this sword.

Commendation:  “I know where you dwell.”

This is practically a concessive. The prophet recognizes the serious situation in which Pergamum Christians live. This church has already experienced legal pressure to renounce the name of Christ and suffered at least one martyr for their resistance. Antipas, about whom we know nothing else, is the only named martyr (“faithful witness”) in Revelation other than Jesus himself.

Pergamum is the location of “Satan’s throne.” This is not a reference back to the “synagogue of Satan” in Smyrna. Rather, this refers to the pagan environment in which Christians lived. Identifying the specific “throne” has proved rather fruitless so perhaps it is best to simply associate it with the vibrant pagan religious life present in Pergamum (including all the features noted above; Oster, Seven Congregations, 135). This city, like others but even more so in Pergamum, was immersed in its dedication to pagan deities and the imperial cult. At one time the capital city of Asia and the virtual center of the imperial cult, perhaps that is sufficient to identify it as “Satan’s throne.” The “throne” here contrasts with the other thrones that appear in Revelation, particularly the “throne” of God in heaven (Revelation 4:2, etc.)

The reference to Satan anticipates how significant his role is in the apocalyptic drama. He is the power behind the Empire as he makes war on the saints of God.

Warning: “But I have a few things against you.”

  • “you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam.”
  • “you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”

While the saints in Pergamum may not have denied the name of Christ, they have compromised it through a syncretistic tolerance.  Balaam is a well-known symbol of syncretism, assimilation, and compromise as he attempted to subvert the faith of Israel (Numbers 22-24). Beale (Revelation, 248-51) notes that the “sword language” that begins and ends the oracle to Pergamum reflects the language of Numbers 31:8 (also Joshua 13:22) that Balaam himself was killed with the sword.

Whatever the specific teachings of these two groups, the prophet focuses on two practices that compromise the faith:  (1) eating food sacrificed to idols, and (2) practicing sexual immorality. Oster (138) observes that “the combination of idolatry and immorality is part of the stock Jewish characterization of pagan existence (cf. Romans 1:18-32 and Wisdom 14:22-27)” and the specific target of Paul’s call to ethical purity in 1 Corinthians 10:1-21. Like some in Corinth, some believers did not think it inappropriate to participate in the idolatrous festivals and eat food sacrificed to idols (presumably at the temples in connection with their artisan guilds or political associations) as well as pursue sexual lust.

Imperative:  “Therefore, repent.”

Cultural and religious assimilation as well as the toleration of aberrant Christian ethics spelled the doom of the Pergamum congregation. The Imperial Lord Jesus the Messiah warns that he will draw the sword against them and wage war against their practices.  “I will come to you soon,” he announces. This coming is neither redemptive nor eschatological. Rather, it is a divine visitation to remove the lampstand of Pergamum from his presence. Jesus will not tolerate their tolerance for Baalam-like syncretism. Instead, they will experience the wrathful sword of the Lamb that will ultimately destroy the nations in Revelation 19:15

Admonition:  “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

This is a warning not only to Pergamum but also to the other churches overhearing the message to them. It is time to listen and respond accordingly.

Promise: “I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone.”

Given the pressure-cooker in which they live and the suffering they have endured, the promises are significant: (1) hidden manna and (2) a white stone with a new name.

The hidden manna probably alludes to the story in 2 Maccabees 2:4-8 that describes how Jeremiah hide the ark of covenant (containing manna) in the Transjordan region at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. This manna was to remain hidden until God gathered his people in an eschatological harvest. Manna is a symbol of God’s provision, and to receive the “hidden manna” is to experience the eschatological banquet, that is, to eat at the table of God. This stands in strong contrast with eating at idolatrous tables.

It seems we ought to see some connection between eating the manna and receiving a white stone with a new name.  The stone probably refers to some kind of invitation since a general custom was to use stone as entrance tokens to banquets and other events. The new name probably refers to a victory name, a conquering name which is given in light of the victory. Consequently, the total picture probably anticipates our invitation to and entrance into the victorious Messianic banquet. As victors–those who have overcome–the faithful witnesses sit at the banquet table and share in the “new name” that Jesus himself has received (cf. Revelation 3:12; cf. 19:12). Probably the “new name” alludes to Isaiah 62:2 and the newness promised in the later chapters of Isaiah (e.g., Isaiah 65:17; 66:22) which is the “new heavens and new earth.”

The contrast, therefore, is strong. Instead of eating at idolatrous banquets and participating in the fleeting pleasure of sexuality immorality, Christ-followers anticipate eating the manna of God at an invitation-only banquet in the New Jerusalem.

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